One could be forgiven for thinking of Sonny Chiba as only an actor, who has appeared in more than 125 feature films. Like Bruce Lee, he became one of the first martial arts actors to receive international acclaim for his movie roles. However, he is a legitimate martial artist, holding black belts in Karate, Judo, Kendo, and Ninjutsu.
Sonny Chiba was born Sadaho Maeda on 22 January 1939, in Fukuoka, Japan. He was the third of five children. His father was a military test pilot.
In 1943 Maeda’s father was transferred to Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture. The rest of the family moved to the nearby city of Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture.
Growing up, Maeda was a very athletic child. He participated in gymnastics, athletics, baseball, and volleyball. In high school, he became the National Sports Festival of Japan Champion in gymnastics. At one stage it looked like he would earn a place on the Japanese Olympic Team. However, a back injury put an end to that dream.
In 1957 Maeda enrolled at Nippon Sports Science University. It was around this time that he began learning Karate under Mas Oyama.
Oyama had founded his dojo in 1953. It was a small dojo located behind Rikkyo University, Tokyo. There were four classes a week with each session lasting 3-4 hours. The training was extremely tough.
Around 1968 Maeda was discovered in a talent search called ‘New Face‘. The talent search was organised by Toei Film Studios. The CEO of the studio gave him the stage name, Shinichi Chiba. In 1960 he made his acting debut.
In 1961 Chiba made his movie debut in the science fiction film ‘Invasion of the Neptune Men‘. Later that year he appeared in his second film, a Kinji Fukasaku film, he appeared in ‘Wandering Detective: Tragedy in Red Valley‘. This was the first film in the long collaboration between Chiba and Fukasaku. For the next decade, Chiba mainly starred in thriller films.
On 15 October 1965 Chiba was graded to 1st Dan by Oyama. By this time Oyama had established Kyokushin Karate.
By 1970 Chiba had established a school for training aspiring martial arts film actors and stuntmen. The school was named Japan Action Club (JAC).
In 1972 Chiba married his first wife, actress, Yoko Nogiwa.
Chiba appeared in his first martial arts feature film, ‘Karate Kiba (Bodyguard Kiba)‘, in 1973.
In 1974 Chiba established himself as an international film star. He appeared in the feature film ‘Street Fighter‘. The film was dubbed into English and distributed by New Line Cinema, making it an international hit.
‘Street Fighter‘ and its sequels ‘Return of the Street Fighter‘, ‘Sister Street Fighter‘ and ‘The Street Fighters Last Revenge‘ established Chiba as Japan’s number one action film star. It was the head of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, who gave him the English name ‘Sonny‘.
On 1 January 1975, Chiba’s first child, Juri ‘Julie‘ Manase was born.
In April 1975, Chiba took part in the 1st Hawaii All-Stars vs Japan Kyokushin Tournament, sponsored by Bobby Lowe. The event was well publicised and many of the 6000 spectators came to see Chiba. Chiba was a member of the Japanese team, coached by Oyama. In his bout, Chiba faced Gregg Kauffman, a former East Coast Karate Champion. Chiba defeated Kauffman by second-round knockout. Japan won the match with 6 wins, 2 draws, 0 losses.
The film ‘Karate Bullfighter‘ was released on 9 August 1975 in Japan. The film, the first in the trilogy of films was based on the life of Mas Oyama. Chiba played the role of his teacher, Oyama. Later that year, on 27 December, the second film, ‘Karate Bearfighter‘ was released in Japan. The final film in the trilogy, ‘Karate for Life‘, was released on 14 May 1977.
On 20 January 1984, Mas Oyama awarded Chiba his 4th Dan.
By 1996 Chiba had divorced his first wife and married his second wife, Tamami. Later that year she gave birth to Chiba’s second child, son JJ Jr. In 1998 she gave birth to his youngest child, Gordon.
In 2003 a new generation of film fans was introduced to Chiba in Quentin Tarantino’s film ‘Kill Bill: Vol1‘. Tarantino was a big fan of Chiba. He had watched many of his films from the 1970s. In the film, Chiba played the role of Sword Master Hattori Hanzo.
Chiba decided to retire his screen name of Shinichi Chiba in November 2007. He wanted to be known as Rindo Wachinaga for his film directing work. He used the name JJ Sonny Chiba (Justice Japan Sonny Chiba) for his acting work.
On 8 August 2021, Chiba was admitted to a Tokyo hospital after contracting the Covid-19 virus.
On 19 August 2021, Sonny Chiba died from complications due to Covid-19. He was 82 years old.
Today, many people know Sonny Chiba as an actor/director, who at one time rivalled Bruce Lee in terms of being a martial arts film star. However, at one time he was also a dominant Kyokushin competitor, who trained under Mas Oyama. His tournament successes and roles in films like the ‘Street Fighter‘, influenced a generation of karateka.